Garry Adelman calls his program a “photography extravaganza,” and he isn’t kidding. Of course, I have a feeling Garry could have a single photograph to discuss, and his enthusiasm and animation would turn it into an extravaganza. He can hardly wait to tell you what cool stuff he’s discovered—an excited 10-year-old boy trapped in a fiftysomething’s body.
“I have a three hour presentation to give in 50 minutes,” he tells the audience. They laugh, but he’s serious. “And I’ll do it, somehow,” he promises.
I’m at the American Battlefield Trust’s Teacher Institute, and Garry’s about to take the stage for his self-described “Civil War Photo Extravaganza.”
He tells us that he’ll limit his talk to the Eastern Theater. “I can’t cover the whole war, I can’t cover the whole east, in an extravaganza format—but this is my attempt to do that,” he explains.
He begins by introducing us to photographers in the field, driving around their “Whatsit Wagons,” which contained mobile darkrooms. “Yes, those photos were made in those wagons,” he says.
Few photographers ventured into the field, he explains. Of the 3,000 or so photographers working at the time, only a dozen or two went on location. “What made you money were the portraits you took in your studios,” Garry says. “You take a portrait, someone likes it and orders four copies—yes!” As a photographer, that’s what you wanted.
New technology allowed photographers to develop negatives on glass plates., which made those multiple copies posible. “Wetplate negatives made photography explode,” Garry explains. Previous forms of photographic technology—tintypes and daguerreotypes—created single images. “If you wanted another, had to take a new image,” Garry says.
Another of the major benefits of glass plate negatives, he explains later, is that they are physically 25 or 30 times bigger than the negatives we’re used to from film. That allows for an incredible level of detail that you can zoom in and see. He zooms in on the hand of a former slave sitting in a contraband camp, and we can clearly see the lines in his hands. “If his hands were turned over, you could see his fingerprints.” Garry marvels. “Try that with a digital photograph!”
The level of details allows him to shows us a photobomber in the bushes on the Peninsula…flies on John Burns’ knees…the awed expressions of people watching the Grand Review after the war. “You can find photos within photos because you can zoom in so closely,” he said.
Garry also talks about the twin-lens cameras photographers used so viewers could see their images in 3-D.
With that background, Garry talked about the abundance of photos that came from the eastern theatre. His throws up a map that highlights Virginia, Maryland, and part of Pennsylvania, labeled “The East.” The rest of the American map is labeled “The West”—or, as his next slide reveals, “Not the East.”
But look at the size of the Western Theater, Garry points out. Geographically, it’s huge. “You can’t cover one-tenth of it. You can’t cover one-twentieth,” he says. As a result, “the West is not photographed nearly as well.” For instance, only three shots of Shiloh came out in the first eight years after the war. None from Franklin. Only twenty from Vicksburg (sparse numbers considering the length of time the armies were there).
The East, in contrast, was close to the population and media centers, close to the bulks of the photographers and their studios, and close to photography supplies. In the South, after the blockade really started to work, photographers began to run out of supplies.
“There are thousands of sketches on Civil War battlefields,” Garry says, pointing out that there are a lot of photographs from the same places at the same time. “You can explore these images with your students in a lot of ways,” Garry tells the teachers. “You don’t need a formal program. There’s a lot to discover.”
A key theme he comes back to, over and over, is the power the photographs have to make people real. “I love how these images humanize people,” he says.
That was one of the real impacts of Alexander Gardner’s twenty-photo series from Antietam. “It shocked the nation,” Garry says. “I can’t stress that enough.”
He invites the audience to look closely: “Bodies piled up, lonely, far from home,” he says. “It’s the antithesis of everything people had learned about what war was supposed to be.”
Exactly 97 photos exist of dead soldiers taken on battlefields: Antietam, Corinth, Second Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, Fredericksburg in 1864, and Petersburg.
He also shares a sequence from Petersburg where the photographer used an assistant to pose as a dead man. The man, an African American, lies among actual dead, creating the appearance of a civilian among the soldiers. As Garry explores the photos, and we understand the backstory, they take on a note of humor as the assistant appears first one place and then another. “Here he is in a ditch!” Garry points out. It’s “Where’s Waldo” at its most macabre.
But Garry uses the humor to circle back to his main point: the humanity of the people in the photos. Many of them, he points out, smile just as he had us in the room smiling. “I’ve documented more than 90 smiles in Civil War photos,” he says, showing us one after another. For those used to impassive facial expressions or grim visages in historical images, the smiles are refreshing, enlivening, real.
We also have fun with hats. He shows us image after image of men wearing top hats. “Anyone with a top hat is Lincoln,” he says, poking fun at the many photos that have been enthusiastically but mistakenly identified as images of Lincoln. We even see several images that have several Lincolns and an image of Teddy Roosevelt in a top hat. “Definitely Lincoln,” Garry says.
We also have fun watching Garry reproduce the famous postwar image of Robert E. Lee standing on his porch in Lincoln. He shares years of pictures on him standing in the same spot, trying to strike the same pose, working to get the same facial expression. He invites us onto the porch to join him and his so-called “loser friends” as they have fun, and so we get to have fun with them.
Standing in the footsteps of Lee provides a literal illustration of one of Garry’s main points. “People from the past are just like us,” he reminds us. “We see them, and they’re in black and white. They seem so different. We think they’re not as smart as us.” To think that way about them is to do them injustice.
That, to Garry, sits at the heart of his Civil War photography studies. “One of the reasons I study battlefield photography: I think we owe it to the troops who were there,” Garry says.
And that brings him to his invitation to the teachers. “You and your students can download these photos and explore them for yourselves,” he says. “Any of you can start looking around and asking questions.”
The Library of Congress has “the lion’s share of the Civil War documentary photographs,” he explained, and all are downloadable for free.
He also points to the Trust’s photography services available to teachers, including 3-D photography resources available at cost.
One of the most poignant moments comes when he shows some photos of veterans attending the 1938. One of the photos shows a movie camera taking pictures. “These men saw planes and tanks and color film,” Garry says. Imagine the changes they saw in their lifetime.
That is Garry’s talent as a presenter. He uses the images in the best possible way as interpretive terms, to invite us into the stories of the men and women in those images, to see the past and help us understand the present, to remind us that they were just like us.